A bill that would require voters to present photo identification at the polls is one step closer to a chamber-wide vote.
House Bill 589 passed the House elections committee 23-11 Wednesday in a vote divided along party lines.
As a little girl, Democratic Representative Evelyn Terry of Winston-Salem saw firsthand what it meant to be able to vote. In yesterday’s committee meeting, Terry told fellow lawmakers how she accompanied her mother and her grandfather as they made multiple visits to a local elections office.
"We went any number of times back to that same place and each time dressed in the finest clothes and tried to register so that we could vote," says Terry.
The problem was that Terry’s grandfather, who was born in 1889, could not read. So her mother helped him memorize the United States Constitution in order to pass the poll test election officials were using at the time.
"I don’t remember exactly how many trips we made until he was able to recite and say everything that was in that preamble as well as several of the articles of the United States Constitution. My mother was a very brilliant woman, so she probably knew it all," Terry says.
For Terry and many other members of the elections committee, House Bill 589 evokes inevitable comparisons to the days of Jim Crow. Terry says she appreciates the fact that Republican leaders have held a month-long series of hearings to gather input on the Voter ID bill, but she still can’t get behind it.
"I simply have the picture of those times in my mind. And therefore there is just nothing, even in spite of all the work, and all of the due diligence that can happen that will make me support something that lends itself to making it so difficult for an American citizen to go and cast a vote," says Terry.
The bill would require residents to bring photo identification with them to the polls beginning in 2016. A number of state-issued IDs would qualify, including those from public colleges and universities, but not private ones.
Some expired state IDs would be accepted, including those for voters over 70. And the state would offer free IDs for those who can’t afford them. House Republicans say the measure is sorely needed. Republican representative Marilyn Avila of Raleigh says it used to be that at her local polling place, everyone knew her name.
"Now, however, with early voting and the polling place halfway across the country, I could walk into half a dozen of them and nobody would know who I am. And I honestly can’t guarantee you that I could walk into my polling place today and everybody at the table would know who I am," says Avila.
The incidence of voting fraud in North Carolina is extremely small, but Republicans insist that more safeguards are necessary. And Tar Heel lawmakers aren’t alone. Across the country, Republicans have introduced a wave of Voter ID measures in state legislatures in recent years. Many have been encouraged by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington. Avila says identity fraud is rampant.
"Your finances can be screwed up for years to come because somebody’s got your name and your Social Security number, so what makes you think because they’ve got your name and your address that they can’t rob you from one of the most precious things you’ve got in this country, your chance to choose the people who govern you?"
Democrats say requiring photo identification at the polls is designed to block minorities and the elderly who’re more likely to vote for their party. But that argument raises Republican Representative Michael Speciale’s hackles.
"Now we have sat here in these meetings and these hearings and listened to this over and over and over again, this rhetoric, we are not trying to suppress anybody, we are not trying to oppress anybody, it has nothing to do with race, it has to do with who you say you are," says Speciale.
The bill will now head to the House Finance Committee. It’s expected to reach the House floor next week.